President’s Corner ”Non-English Speaking Pilots”

May June Cal PIlots Newsletter

By Jay C. White

Recently a Mexican Airlines flight caused quite a stir during a flight to and after landing at San Francisco Airport. The flight crew experienced radio communications difficulties enroute. In an attempt to comply with recommended procedures they activated a discrete frequency on the aircraft transponder. As stated in the Airman’s Information Manual, the discrete code for alerting air traffic controllers to a communication failure is 7600. Instead, for reasons not clear this crew displayed code 7700. That is the international code indicating a an onboard emergency. That, however, was not the weird part. After landing and being still unable to communicate with tower personnel the crew was directed away from the terminal building where they waited two hours with over 100 passengers still on board. A really surprising part of the drama was the necessity to provide a Spanish speaking person on the ground to communicate with the crew through an open aircraft door to learn there was no emergency. How could such a language problem exist in the highly complex U.S. airspace system? English is the official air traffic control language used throughout the world. Pilots from other countries are supposed to speak English when flying within the U.S. The major difficulty lies in the degree of fluency required. By international comity foreign countries are allowed to determine if their pilots are sufficiently fluent in English to fly in this country. No confirmation or enforcement by any U.S. agency is required. For years airline pilots and air traffic controllers have been aware of certain foreign pilots’ communications deficiencies. When monitoring frequencies in high-density traffic areas the lack of quality communications can be quite obvious. This can be particularly noticeable when a foreign pilot is required to read back a routing or altitude clearance issued by a controller. What can be done about this unsettling situation? Not much. Air traffic controllers have been known to provide extra airspace separation when aircraft from certain countries are in the area. Other pilots who are monitoring the same frequency can maintain extra visual vigilance if the position of a foreign airline aircraft has not been verified.

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